RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Washington, D.C. is in the midst of celebrating all things Indian, a three-week festival of dance, music, theater. There are antique saris and contemporary art on display. And for a taste of India, the festival turned to the country's top chef: Hemant Oberoi.
Mr. HEMANT OBEROI (Corporate Chef, Taj Hotels & Resorts): India is a vast country of 25,000 dishes, 25,000 recipes known and unknown. And I want everybody to enjoy the best.
MONTAGNE: Hemant Oberoi is in charge of all the restaurants in the luxury hotel group The Taj. That's more than a hundred. He works out of its legendary Taj Mahal Palace and Towers in Mumbai.
We joined him in the kitchen at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, to get a demonstration of some of the dishes he's offering, including this one: Kali Mirch Ka Murga.
Mr. OBEROI: Which is chicken with the peppercorns. You heat up the oil. You add a little bit of the cumin seeds. You add the chopped onions. You add the chopped ginger, half a teaspoon of the garlic paste.
(Soundbite of sizzling and crackling)
Mr. OBEROI: If you don't get the sound of crackling of the cumin seeds, you can never make a good food.
MONTAGNE: That's one of the key moments when you know it's working, is when you here the cumin seeds rattling in the pan?
Mr. OBEROI: Yeah. Yeah.
Mr. OBEROI: This chicken is already marinated with yogurt, so here we add the crushed peppercorns to the dish. Now I'm going to finish it with a little cream.
MONTAGNE: And I can see the cream is absorbing all the onions and the spices, and turning a little light brown.
Mr. OBEROI: Cooking is the easiest thing in life. I enjoy what I do, although that's not what I wanted to do in life.
MONTAGNE: You wanted to be a doctor?
Mr. OBEROI: I wanted to be a doctor. Then I wanted to be army officer.
MONTAGNE: There's a joke in India that the career choices that make the most desirable husbands are doctors and engineers. So Oberoi says his family was shocked 40 years ago when he went into cooking. There were no models for such a career. But he became known for bringing international cuisine to Indiana in a series of elegant restaurants.
And before opening his first Indian restaurant in 2002, he spent a year traveling around his country in search of the authentic - dishes that would never be offered in a five-star hotel.
Mr. OBEROI: I wanted to bring back the forgotten recipes. And I wanted to make sure that we don't open another Indian restaurant where it is only tandoori chicken and biryani and kabobs. That you can get in all the restaurants.
MONTAGNE: One dish in particular that Oberoi re-discovered made a new hit out of a traditional workers' lunch - a dish that had all but disappeared - atta chicken, which roughly translates to dough chicken. It dates back to a time in Punjab Province, when every little house had a kind of brick oven known as a tandoori.
Mr. OBEROI: And in the olden days, the lady of the house would marinate the chicken in the night, wrap it with the leftover dough of the bread, and she would leave it in the tandoori oven on a slow fire. By the morning, when the man of the house was ready to go for work, he would carry the chicken, which was fully baked, and the bread was baked and the chicken was cooked.
That was the atta chicken, which was probably in the '30s, and 1930, 1940s, it was prevalent. We brought the dish back. Within six months to eight months, all over Punjab, that original atta chicken, all the outlets came up, and hundreds of them now.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: So you can take credit for like atta chicken joints all over Punjab.
Mr. OBEROI: That's okay, yeah.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MONTAGNE: Chef Oberoi shared several recipes with us at the Kennedy Center kitchen, and you can see them on our website. Essential to most is that very Indian mix of spices: cumin, cardamom, coriander, cloves and more, called garam masala.
Mr. OBEROI: Garam masala is a magical powder. It varies from a person to person, grandmother's secret recipe to mother's secret recipe, to so on. And that's what...
MONTAGNE: Is this your secret recipe?
Mr. OBEROI: Oh, not so. I'm very open about the things. No two people can make the same food the same way.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Chef Oberoi operates seven restaurants in just the Taj Mahal Palace. And he was there at its most tragic moment, back in 2008, when terrorists attacked Mumbai. The gunmen roamed the halls of the Taj for hours, shooting anyone they saw.
Mr. OBEROI: I got a call from one of my chefs: Chef, there's a shooting going on. In a minute, I said close the doors, switch off the lights. That's how 120 people's lives was saved, because the lights were switched off and the doors were closed. And they walked past those restaurants. And then there was a banquet going on where we had a wedding of 200 people. We immediately closed the doors, brought everybody into - from the back areas, into a safe area behind my office.
And we made sure they were looked after in the night, because from 9 o'clock to one, 1:30, people were hungry, also - although they were scared. So, in fact, my team was making sandwiches. My team was looking after the fresh tea, coffee being served to them, in spite of everything going on.
MONTAGNE: And this was when - when you say everything going on, this is where the hotel, parts of it were on fire?
Mr. OBEROI: Yeah, that was on the - you know, we knew where the fire was taking place. We were trying to make sure that all the guests are safe.
MONTAGNE: Of the more than 170 people who died that day when in Mumbai, 31 were in the Taj, including seven of Hemant Oberoi's chefs.
Was it hard to go back in after the hotel...
Mr. OBEROI: Not really.
MONTAGNE: ...was repaired?
Mr. OBEROI: Not really. We reopened in 21 days, with a new cutlery, new crockery, new glassware.
MONTAGNE: And people came.
Mr. OBEROI: And people came. On the opening night, when we opened, there were thousand people in the lobby to show solidarity to us.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Hemant Oberoi is one of India's best-known chefs. He's showing off his country's cuisine this month in Washington, D.C. at an Indian cultural festival.
(Soundbite of music)
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
From NPR News, this is MORNING EDITION.
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